Growing up in Hong Kong, I practiced Chinese brush painting and calligraphy at a very young age. I learned that brush strokes are a reflection of your heart and spirit, naturally flowing from your hand to the paint brush onto the paper. Using more than just lines, Chinese brush painting is a free-hand style that focuses on the expression of shade, texture, and dotting methods. I chose to focus on a few strokes to bring my birds, flowers, and plants to life.
Using nature as my inspiration, I infuse Chinese meaning into my pieces by celebrating the symbolism behind particular animals, plants, and flowers. The symbols and motifs seen in Chinese artwork are not merely decorative but represent hidden meanings that convey good wishes. For example, images of the lotus flower bestow harmony and peace; bamboo represents longevity and vitality; pomegranates symbolize prosperity and abundance; cranes represent longevity and well-being; and birds bring happiness with their songs. By using decorative surface techniques like scribing, impressing, and Chinese brush painting, I layer and weave these auspicious and inspirational meanings into my work.
In my current exploration, I seek to find balance between Chinese brush painting and the atmospheric effects of soda firing. I am inspired by the endless possibilities and challenges of painting with flames—the decorative effects created by the flames, added flux, and ventilation in the kiln. The soda firing becomes another brush to layer texture and background onto my work.
Impressing Texture and Assembling
To make a mug, roll out a slab between two ¼-inch-diameter dowels. At this point, I’m already thinking about the shape of my mug and how I’m going to design the surface on it. Throughout the process, I consider where my impressed design will go, the layout of my Chinese brush painting, how I’m going to spray the slip glaze to achieve the texture I want, and any final touches that need to be applied.
Once you have a design in mind, use a textured mat to impress a pattern onto the slab. I have a collection of commercially made textured mats and some that I’ve carved myself using soft blocks of lino material (1). To prevent the clay from sticking to the textured mat, dust a light coating of cornstarch onto the mat (2). Once impressed, place a rectangular template on the slab, use a rib tool to smooth over any unwanted texture to create a blank space for painting (3), then cut around the inside of the template. Assemble and prepare the parts of the mug for bisque firing. After the bisque firing, wipe down the surface with a clean, damp sponge and then glaze the interior of the mug with a yellow salt glaze.
Choosing the Right Brush
I use a combination of small- and medium-sized brushes (4).
Hard (stiff) brushes are made with deer, wolf, or horse hair and will hold their shape when being used: (#1) long, thin stiff brush—good for branches and line work; (#2) same as #1 but with more hair—good for the bird’s wings and tails; (#3) fine-tip small detail brush made with wolf hair—good for painting the bird’s beak and feet.
Sable watercolor brushes: (#4) long sable watercolor brush—good for all the outlining of leaf veins and stems; (#5) thicker-bodied sable watercolor brush—good for dot strokes to create the eyes, body dots, and moss.
Medium brush: (#6) a wolf- or goat-hair brush provides more bounce and the fine tip and thick body creates a wide, smooth stroke for painting leaves.
Soft brushes: (#7 or #8) made with sheep, goat, or rabbit hair. Based on the size of the brush and painting angle, soft brushes absorb a lot of glaze to provide smooth, wider, and fleshy strokes. These are good for birds’ heads and bodies, pomegranates, flowers, and some small leaves and petals.
Chinese Brush Painting Techniques
Holding a Chinese paint brush is not like holding a pen, and having the correct grip will help you paint more smoothly and with more spontaneous expression (5). Start by holding the brush vertically between your thumb and index finger. Then, rest your middle finger on the brush handle just below the index finger. Your ring finger should support the brush underneath. I tend to hold the brush slightly below the center of the handle. If you are painting small details and want more control, hold the brush closer to the bristles and support your arm on the table. For more free-flowing strokes, hold the brush further up the handle and ensure your arm can move freely in the air. Practice painting with different amounts of pressure applied to the brush and play around with different shapes to see how the thickness of the stroke can vary.
Steps for Painting and Spraying
My black glaze is a combination of Duncan CN253 (30%) and E2Stroke (70%). My brown glaze is 100% Alberta Slip. I add red iron oxide or rutile so the color may vary from a brown to a yellow, depending on the thickness of the glaze. It is best to do a few warm-up strokes and practice on a bisque plate or tile before painting on an actual piece (6).
Next, to map out your composition, cut out a stencil in the shape of a bird and use charcoal powder to lightly brush the inside edge of the stencil to create a guide so you can confidently paint the birds (7). This step can be skipped if you have a clear idea of your composition.
I paint birds in the following order: body, beak, body outline and head, wings, tail, eye, dots on the body, and finally the feet. I use a soft brush (#7 in image 4) to paint small birds and another soft brush (#8 in image 4) for larger birds. With the brown glaze, use a slanted stroke to paint the crown of the head by placing the tip of the brush near the beak. For the back, paint three slanted strokes spontaneously (8). Use a detail brush (#3 in image 4) with black glaze to paint the beak. Use the tip of the brush to outline the beak and fill in with black. Then, outline the bird’s body with black glaze using a long sable liner brush (#4 in image 4). To outline, use the vertical stroke to paint a fluid line. This brush will hold more glaze, giving you longer, more flowing lines (9). For the tail, feathers, and wings, use a long, stiff brush (#2 in image 4) to apply a combination of short and long strokes with the black glaze. Use as few strokes as possible. The tail feathers are painted with two strokes (10). For the eyes and body spots, use the tip of a sable brush (#5 in image 4) with black glaze to press and lift for various sized dots (11).
After painting the bird’s body on the bisqueware, spray the form with flashing slip. Adding slip can affect the buildup of sodium oxide on the pot. This is what creates the variations in color and surface effect. To make the pattern more interesting, think about covering some areas with stencil paper, then spraying the form again with blue slip. Remove the stencil paper and then spray with titanium slip and tile 6 slip. Avoid spraying the bird’s body (12).
Once you finish spraying, go back in with your paintbrush to add the branches, leaves, and a stem. Use the bone stroke with a brush (#1 in image 4) to paint thick lines by gradually pressing the brush down onto the surface. Leave some areas unpainted for the front leaves. The strokes of the branches and stems go from thick to thin for a natural appearance. Apply a vertical stroke using brown glaze on a brush (#6 in image 4) for all the leaves (13). Arrange the leaves in groups of three to five in various positions. Use a single stroke per leaf. The size of the leaves is determined by the brush you use and the amount of pressure you apply to the brush.
Next, use a brush (#1 or #4 in image 4) and black glaze to apply a vertical stroke to paint stems from the branch to each leaf, add veins, and outline the leaves. Ensure you illustrate the right angles as you paint the veins. To paint the bird’s feet, use a stiff detail brush (#3 in image 4), and apply a little pressure on the tip of the brush to form the legs and feet. The stroke should appear bold and strong to support the bird on the branch. To complete the composition and finish off the piece, paint various dot strokes to create small leaves, moss, and flower buds here and there, where it makes sense. Remember this kind of painting is meant to be spontaneous (14).
For me, the value of soda firing lies in the process. Always one-of-a-kind, the results can range from being breathtakingly subtle to extremely bold and dramatic. I think the natural background look and feel that the flashing and orange-peel effect give really bring out the designs in my pieces.
Add wadding to the bottom of the mug to prep it for soda firing. When placing pieces in the kiln, it’s important to think carefully about where the piece will get hit with soda vapor so as to protect the painting on the piece. It’s best to visualize the soda vapor as a river that flows through the kiln. Objects in direct contact with the flame path (river) will receive heavier deposits than the side facing the interior of the kiln, or where pots or posts can be positioned to deflect the flow. For flame and vapor variations to occur, applying flashing slip and playing with the spaces where the pots are positioned can affect the build up of soda glaze.
With practice and experimentation, you can experience Chinese brush painting for yourself. Using your own motifs, you can explore your own painting journey.
Chinese Brush Strokes
Vertical Stroke (A–C)
The vertical stroke in image A is also called the central brush-point, and it’s a painting technique I use the most in my Chinese brush painting. It uses a combination of lifting, pressing, and dragging of the brush to achieve different effects that go from hard to soft lines, light to heavy markings, and bright to dark strokes. When you hold the brush vertically at a 90° angle, you are able to create fine, rounded, uniform, and fluid strokes. Keep your wrist and arm loose so the brush strokes are fluid. I use this stroke for all the outlining, including birds’ bodies, stems, pomegranates, fruits, flowers, and leaf veins.
This vertical stroke (B) is used for creating leaves. It’s a one-stroke painting technique. The size of the leaves can be adjusted depending on the size of the brush and pressure. Begin your stroke from the base of the leaf, touch the tip of the brush onto the surface of the pot, press down to create your vertical stroke, and then lift the brush to form the tip of your leaf. Your wrist and arm must be loose and relaxed.
This vertical line stroke (C) is the most difficult vertical stroke to learn and requires some practice. However, it’s the most elegant calligraphic stroke. Also called a bone stroke, this stroke is used for the bird’s beak, feet, wings, twigs, and branches. Hold the brush vertically up and down and pull the brush across the surface. The pressure applied determines the thickness of the stroke. The fluidity of the line is helped when you move the brush using your fingers and whole arm to change direction.
Slanted Stroke (D)
Also called the brush-side technique, the slanted stroke angles the brush less than 80° parallel to the surface of the piece. The width and shape of the stroke is determined by the angle of the brush to the surface. The slanted stroke is used for painting soft, textured objects. The narrower the angle, the wider the stroke. I use this stroke for birds’ heads and bodies, pomegranates, flowers, and leaves.
Dot Stroke (E)
There are two types of dot strokes. Tear-drop-shaped dots are created by using the tip of the brush. Push the entire brush to the surface and lift without moving the brush. This stroke is great for painting flower and leaf buds. Round dots are created by holding the brush vertically and applying pressure straight down to the surface. The size of the brush and the amount of pressure exerted determine the size of the dot. I use this stroke for the bird’s eye, dots on the bird’s body, flower buds, and moss. The dots provide accents and highlights for the painting.
Article written with Audrey Wang, and all process photos and photos of finished pieces taken by Eliza Wang and Thomas Wong. Special thanks to the Shadbolt Art Centre technicians who, through their experience, helped me put my painting into the soda-firing process.
Eliza Wang is a ceramic artist who maintains a home studio in Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada. She earned a diploma in art education from the Graham Education Institute in Hong Kong and a certificate in graphic design and ceramics at the Vancouver School of Art. Her work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, including being selected as a juried show winner for several ICAN exhibitions. You can see more of her work at https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/ican/portfolio/wang-eliza.